Race to the Bottom

Before launching this website I wrote five “Postcapitalist Fiction” pamphlets, establishing a framing context for what I’d hoped would become a writers’ collaborative experiment in anarcho-collectivist publishing. In November 2017, as part of this website’s second-ever post, I quoted from the first pamphlet, called “Writing Precariously”:

I read somewhere that, on average, a published novelist earns about $11 thousand per book: not enough to make a living, as everyone agrees. Again, the average is skewed sharply toward the right end of the distribution by the one percent, the heavyweight celebrity authors who bring in six or seven figures for each new release. [The median is around $6K: half the writers make less than that per published novel, half make more.]

Those findings came from a survey of writers conducted in 2009 by The Authors Guild. A new survey just came out, updating the numbers. Over that ten-year span, authors’ annual median income from book revenues has dropped from $6K to $3K. The decline is especially steep for literary fiction. Self-published revenues have doubled over the past ten years; still, the median is under $2K per year. What about other writing-related sources of revenue — teaching, editing, speaking engagements, book reviews? That revenue stream too generates around $3K per year median income — also a decline from ten years ago

“Among the factors contributing to the pressure on authorship, the Guild cited the growing dominance of Amazon over the marketplace, lower royalties and advances for mid-list books (which publishers report comes from losses they are forced to pass on), including the extremely low royalties paid on the increasing number of deeply discounted sales and the 25 percent of net ebook royalty. The blockbuster mentality of publishers who grant celebrity writers massive advances and markets them wildly at the expense of the working writers is also certainly a factor.”

The Guild’s report notes dire consequences not just for writers but for society at large. Some specific proposals for turning things around are offered, though no doubt the Guild made recommendations ten years ago when the situation, already desperate, was twice as good as it is today.


Getting Out the Trump Vote Again

Canvassing doesn’t work in wooing uncommitted voters — here’s the evidence.

It does seem though that systematic efforts to get out the vote have some impact. That’s partly what happened in the 2016 presidential election: Republicans were persuaded to vote for Trump, even if they didn’t much like him, in order to prevent Clinton from winning. Meanwhile Clinton generated only tepid enthusiasm and turnout among Democrats.

Trump seems particularly vulnerable as the 2020 campaign gets underway, losing support from the swing states and the suburbanites who made the difference last time around, and not even factoring in the Mueller reveal that’s yet to come. You’d have to think that a lot of the people who voted Trump’s way last time are going to sit this one out.

So what can Republicans do to jack up the turnout? The traditional hot-button issues are still in play  — abortion, drugs, illegal immigrants, Obamacare. Terrorism? Trump himself just pulled that plug by declaring victory over ISIS and amping up negotiations with the Taliban, but maybe he’ll juice the anti-Iran sentiment.

What seems likely is that the Republicans will spotlight the new wave of left-wing Democrats, even if they lose the nomination to a more moderate candidate. The Democratic tent harbors radical leftists, increasingly strident and influential, who are pushing America inexorably toward socialism and infanticide while opening our borders to roving hordes of Mexicans who kill us with their drugs, rape our women, and take our jobs. Sure Trump is an asshole, but you already knew that when you voted him in last time and — thank God — prevented Hillary from ruining our country. Buck up and get yourself out to the polls!





MFA as Luxury Resort

Since 2011, enrollment in US universities has dropped 10 percent, and the decline is expected to accelerate. It’s not because fewer high school graduates are attending college, or because fewer college students stick around long enough to graduate. It’s because the pool of potential applicants is slowly draining.

The overall US population continues to rise, but that’s due almost entirely to an increasing average lifespan, resulting in a decreasing death rate. The birthrate, by contrast, has been declining for a decade. The replacement fertility rate for keeping the long-term population on an even keel is 2.1 children per woman; as of 2017 the US fertility rate was 1.76, accelerating the downward trend that began ten years earlier.

Enrollment in MFA programs is also dropping. What’s the replacement fertility rate for MFA faculty, where they’re spawning new hires at a rate that equals their retirement rate? I don’t have the data, so I’ll estimate. Let’s say that on average a professor spends 30 years on the job. As long as the average MFA professor reproduces one MFA teaching candidate over the course of his or her career, staffing equilibrium is maintained.

Pretty clearly MFA programs are vastly exceeding the professorial replacement rate. Let’s guess that a typical MFA program has a faculty-student ratio of 4 to 1, which would mean that each MFA faculty member produces 4 MFA graduates per year. Over the course of a career that’s 4 x 30 = 120 MFA grads. What percentage of those graduates would want to teach in an MFA program? Practically nobody is able to make a living solely from writing or painting or acting, so teaching is a good fall-back career move. Let’s be conservative and say 20 percent of MFA grads would want to teach in an MFA program: so that’s 120 x .2 = 24 potential replacements spawned by each MFA prof over a career — 24 times the replacement fertility rate. So only 1 in 24 = 4% of MFA graduates who want to teach in an MFA program will get hired to do so. Wait till next year? Oh wait, enrollments are declining, so fewer of the retirees will need to be replaced. Teach undergrad? Same problem. High school?

While the overall US economy has been growing at around a 2 percent rate annually, the global luxury sector is growing at around 5 percent per year, as a consequence of increasing income and wealth stratification. Is the MFA a luxury spend? It’s expensive, and most graduates won’t recoup the expenditure via lifetime earnings. It’s a consumer good, like a BMW SUV. If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it. Or maybe enrolling in an MFA program is more like a long-term stay at a luxury resort, the guests serviced by a horde of lackeys making minimum wage or less.

This line of thinking is where I began Ficticities. And now here it comes back around, the return of the repressed, the line curving into a circle.


De-Turing Test

Let’s invoke the boilerplate frontispiece disclaimer:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

In my story, a big high-tech company has developed a self-learning AI system that can carry on natural-language conversations online, by text or by voice, spanning a wide array of topics. Would the AI pass the Turing Test? The tech company arranges for a number of university professors to enroll the company’s AI in their online classes. At the beginning of the semester each participating professor announces to the students that one among them is an AI and that it’s their task, individually and collectively, to identify the android in their midst.

Already within the first week several students have come forward, confessing to their classmates that they are the androids. Pranksters no doubt, budding philosophers playing with the idea that humans aren’t all that different from machines. But what if the self-confessed androids are telling the truth? Maybe it’s a ruse, the AI system deploying reverse psychology in order to throw the humans off their scent. So now the Turing Test gets turned around: can an intelligent entity prove that it’s not an android?



From the Frying Pan into the Future

A month or so ago I received a jury duty summons in the mail. Only once before had I been called — it was while we were living in Boulder — but one of the attorneys eliminated me during voir dire. A lot of people try to avoid jury duty, but I’d been looking forward to it. A couple of years earlier my wife Anne had been seated on a jury for a horrific alleged crime, and while finding it stressful to sit through the testimony and presentation of evidence Anne had been fascinated by the trial proceedings and the jury deliberation. When it was over she felt that she had contributed something to the greater civic good, and had received something meaningful in return. I’d wanted in, and was disappointed when they gave me the boot.

The summons, issued by the Office of the Sheriff, instructed me to report for duty in the Jury Assembly Room at the Durham County Courthouse at 8:30 this morning. However, the letter further informed me that “sometimes jurors may no longer be needed by the date for which you are summoned.” I was told to call a number after 5:30 on the evening before my service date to see if they still wanted me to come in. I called, and they didn’t. “You don’t need to report for jury service,” the recorded woman’s voice informed me. “The court’s juror requirements have been met. By being available you have fulfilled your service. Thank you.” Well, a little bit of a letdown. Maybe I’m not the only one who’s felt disappointed. I’d been available for future service, which would have become present service today. But the recorded message informed me that I had already fulfilled my service in the past merely by being available. Now I suppose I can hold my head high: I fulfilled my civic duty, received my honorable discharge, no need to thank me for my service, I count it a privilege. I wonder if the Courthouse sells “I Served” t-shirts. My Badge Number and Juror Number are printed in the upper-left heading of my summons– the t-shirt could leave blank lines where the purchaser can write in his own numbers.

With time on my hands and blueberries and buttermilk in the fridge I decided to make pancakes for breakfast. I cracked the egg and slid it into the bowl — two yolks! According to the Egg Industry this is a one-in-a-thousand occurrence. The dual-yolk eggs used to be pulled from the production lines during candling because they tended to freak out the cooks, presaging either good luck or pregnancy or twins or death. I guess when you’re making pancakes you don’t want to look much further ahead than breakfast. Nowadays though the double-yolk eggs just pass on through — it’s probably just a cost-effectiveness thing, though superstition seems to have lost potency to shape destinies over recent decades. In any event, the pancakes turned out nicely — I’d like to thank that hen for her service. Now we’ll see what the rest of the day holds in store.

Writing this stuff down it starts feeling like the beginning of a novel…

“You have fulfilled your service.”

John hung up the phone. He’d already mapped out the route and planned what to bring along to keep himself occupied while waiting to be called. Though he’d never entertained any inclination to study the law, though he had found himself gravely disappointed in his only brush with the system, small claims court having meted out its lazy injustice on what he deemed arbitrary and capricious grounds, not to mention the outright lying of his duplicitous adversary, John had long been intrigued by the legal process, by the all-rises and the swearing-ins, by the evidence bags and the depositions, by crime scene photos and forensic expert testimony, by the contrasting narratives spun by prosecution and defense, stories that to the jury would sound clear and convincing beyond a shadow of a doubt…


Here’s a summary of a couple of recent experiments demonstrating deep placebo/nocebo effect. It’s not too surprising that, when told that their DNA test results reveal a particular genetic predisposition, study participants demonstrated attitudes, feelings, and behaviors consistent with that genetic marker, even when the DNA results are fake news. But the participants also underwent physiological changes consistent with the fake genetic news.

This work comes out of the Stanford Mind & Body Lab, which “focuses on how subjective mindsets (e.g., thoughts, beliefs, and expectations) can alter objective reality through behavioral, psychological, and physiological mechanisms.” They’re tracing a causal cascade that runs opposite from but complementary to that of contemporary neuroscience, which explores how brain physiology shapes subjective mindsets. Then there’s this earlier study from Harvard demonstrating that placebo responsiveness might itself be genetic.

These sorts of findings tend to stimulate extravagant inferences.